• Dr. Bill Walker

A Warning For Parents of Teens: High School Is Not What It Used To Be

What Today’s High School Kids Are Dealing with at school is enough to make you cry.

I taught middle and high school kids for 4 years. That was a few decades ago. At that time, life was still pretty safe and normal for both, me, and my students.

A recent article by Business Insider [1] reveals that the world I once taught in has morphed into a place I would not recognize today, nor survive as a teacher. And it appears that smartphones and social media are primary contributors to this disturbing change.

This findings in this article are based on a recent documentary on A&E, titled 'Undercover High'. The show follows 7 young adults (ages 21-26) who go undercover as students at a Kansas high school.

What they discovered is that life for today’s teens is nothing like what we older adults experienced. When the undercover adults were interviewed for an article by Business Insider, they painted an alarming new world that should disturb us all.

Here are 7 realities uncovered about life for today’s high school student.

I. Social Media Has Changed the Game

Teens are constantly plugged in to social media via their smart phones. As a result a very unhealthy amount of their self-identity is based on their online presence. The result is a constant pressure to maintain this online presence 24 hours a day.

As one of the undercover students explained,

"The kinds of challenges that I experienced in high school along with my peers are now 24/7 issues because of technology, computers, cellphones, and social media. There's no real escape."

II. Teachers Have Less Control Than Ever

The undercover adults were shocked that during class time, “most students were on their phone for most of the time”. Not surprisingly, teachers state that getting students to focus on class work is a daily struggle, and more and more a losing one.

This problem is compounded by an increased lack of student respect for authority. One student bluntly stated,

"You're not supposed to have your phone out, but honestly, we don't care".

On their personal phones students can access movies, music, sports and watch pornographic videos during class. How is a teacher presenting a history or English grammar lecture supposed to compete with this?

III. Bullying Is Now Around the Clock.

It used to be that school problems tended to stay at school. Going home for the day offered a respite from school-related conflict, like being bullied. True, some nights were spent dreading the next day at school, but at least home offered a few hours of safety and escape. No longer. Thanks to the smartphone and social media, cyberbullying has become an around the clock reality.

Just as bad, bullying has become a group event. A single post from the bully to all the people on his/her social media friends list and with lightening speed everyone can get into the act. Instead of an issue between two people now it can easily become an issue between one person and another person along with 100 of his/her social media friends. And these ‘friends’ can send their own bullying messages around the clock.

One undercover student told Business Insider,

"Now it can be one person has an issue with one person, and everybody else chimes in, and by the time it gets to the next day, someone wants to fight, someone's not going to school, someone is threatening suicide. It took something singular — granular even — and it's just ballooned overnight until it becomes a major issue."

As well, school conflict is no longer about Steve and Tommy meeting after school to fight things out. Girls are now especially prone to engaging in cyberbullying. Some sources indicate that “girls are almost twice as likely as boys to be both victims and perpetrators of cyber bullying”. [2]

IV. Girls Are Constantly Pressured To Show Sexual Images of Themselves.

This one just makes me want to cry. Imagine an innocent ninth grader who is dying to fit in with the group and be accepted. She is asked by a popular boy to send some phone pictures of herself in various states of undress.

From this girl’s perspective doing so is tempting. After all, she can take these pics in the privacy of her own bedroom – who will know except the popular boy who requested them. In her immature mind the benefit (popularity and acceptance) outweighs the cost.

Undercover student, Nicolette, age 22, described it in these heartbreaking words:

"It's something that's normal for them — posting promiscuous pictures of themselves and rating themselves based on what others think and like off social media."

So, not only are they sending the pictures, which can never be taken back, but they are also basing their self-worth (“rating themselves”) based on how many positive social media response they receive.

Denial can be too easy way out for parents. “Well, my daughter would never do this”. Hopefully not. But never underestimate the enormous pressure to want to fit in and be accepted by one’s peer group.

As one student told Business Insider,

"The girls that get exposed and stuff, they're, like, the freshman girls. They're, like, really dumb, and they'll just send stuff to just about anyone that asks for it."

V. They Are Struggling With Depression In Record Numbers

And no surprise, much of it is connected to their world of social media.

A 2016 study found that the number of teens reporting a major depressive episode (MDE) increased by 37% between 2005 and 2014. [3] This should alarm all of us.

It is noteworthy that this time period very much corresponds to the introduction and increasing use of smartphones among this generation’s teens.

What could be the connection? Maybe this:

"It's not just your image at school that you have to uphold, like what kind of shoes you're wearing, what brand are you wearing, what kind of backpack do you have. Now you have to uphold this image on social media: how many likes do you have, how many hearts do you have, who are you following, how many followers. And it's just doubled the impact of what it was before." [Undercover student, Nicolette]

It is depressing that today’s teens define their worth based on their social media popularity. The unwritten reality is that the more people respond to a post with ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’ the more popular you are. When someone posts a photo or message and it gets only a few, or worse, none, positive responses the message to the poster is, “no one is interested in your life and what you have to share”. The result can be depression and lowered self-worth.

VI. Teen Pregnancy Is (almost) the New Normal

The school in the documentary, Highland Park, has enough pregnant students on a yearly basis to justify a daycare center housed in the school.

Only decades ago becoming pregnant as a teen required a student to drop out of school. Being pregnant was taboo and socially unacceptable. Today, many schools across the nation offer daycare services for their numerous students who are also parents.

Maybe most disconcerting is the fact that it has always been this way for this generation of students, and teen pregnancy is met with a shoulder-shrug mentality.

Why shouldn’t it? These kids have grown up with teen pregnancy being glorified in shows like MTV’s ever popular, '16 and Pregnant'. Whether intended or not, the overriding message has always been: Get pregnant at 16 and you, too, can become a TV star, followed and adored by millions of other teens.

VII. Today’s Kids Desperately Want an Adult To Talk To

This may be the greatest need for students today. To have a trusted, empathic adult in their lives may be the difference between drowning in a sea of overwhelming cultural pressure and finding a stable, dry patch of ground to stand.

But instead of listening it can be easier to look disapprovingly down our adult noses at today’s generation and their problems. This helps nothing and no one.

We need to remember – today’s kids did not invent the smartphone or the internet. These kids did not ask to grow up in tumultuous families marked by selfish dysfunction and soul-shattering divorce. Nor, did they ask to be raised by adults who were often too busy chasing the American Dream to have time to adequately nurture them.

The truth is most of today’s parents feel overwhelmed by the societal monster our cultural and technological advancements has created.

What Can Parents Do?

*Snap out of any denial that a serious problem exists.

*Snap out of any denial that this could happen to YOUR child

*TALK to your kids.

--Ignore their protests about having a sit-down conversation with you.

--Tell them your motivation for talking is always because you love them

--Tell them the day they graduate from high school they will never see nor hear from 95% of these high school classmates again, and that it is therefore pointless to base their self-worth on these people’s opinions.

Yet, you, on the other hand, will be a constant source of love and encouragement in their lives until the day you die.

--Tell them they need to keep their phones OFF when they are in class.

--Tell them they need to cut their phones off when they go to bed and for a 2 hour block sometime between getting home from school and bedtime.

--Tell them whenever they are feeling down to please let you know.

--Tell them their naked body is for no one’s consumption at this point in their lives. No sexting. No sex for now. It’s just an added pressure in their young lives. Whether they follow your advice or not it is important they know where you, their parent, firmly stands.

--Tell them, even when you get busy, you always want them to feel they can come talk to you – about anything – especially anything that is bothering you.

--Whatever you say – say it in an empathic, supportive, non-judgmental way.

Before You Go

Will anyone read this? Please share and respond so others can be reached with this message.

Thank you.

dr. bill walker